Kevin McAllister on 11 Nov 2009 03:33:14 -0800

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[PLUG] PLUG North question on task management

Last night JP asked a question about any suggestions for task  
management and noted a system he'd created using text files and bash.   
I couldn't think of it then but there is a project called "todo.txt"  
that does something similar there may be some ideas you could learn  
from there.

The other parts of the conversation were related to how to manage the  
myriad things flowing at  you as interrupts through the day.  I just  
wanted to comment in my typical wordy fashion on that question with a  
description of how I manage it.

First for anyone not familiar with David Allen's book Getting Things  
Done and if you've ever felt overwhelmed by your workload, I very  
highly recommend you pick up a copy of the book and read it.  It lays  
out a practical system for dealing with pretty much everything.

So like JP I have a list of many/many tasks organized both by project  
and context in a MacOS application called OmniFocus.  (Context is  
physical location or needs in order to do the task, e.g. @Computer,  
@Phone.)  And I also typically create a daily or weekly list of  
priorities.  A way to view this list is, if magically I get no email,  
phone calls or pop-ins during the next 5 days this is what I'll do.   
I'll typically print that out or handle it in it's own list so I can  
maintain focused on it throughout the week.  And for motivational  
reasons I try to estimate a list I'll be able to accomplish completely  
assuming the level of urgent issues I need to deal with is about  

So how I deal with interruptions.  First I've chosen to fight to  
sandbox my really creative work from them.  So I've been working to  
institute Do Not Disturb time blocks with my co-workers, and then to  
enforce it upon myself by logging out of IM, IRC, quitting email and  
twitter clients and blocking every kind of notification.  This has  
been very worthwhile and I recommend it but I know depending on your  
work and responsibilities it could be impossible.

Second when they do arise I make a conscious decision to recognize  
that I've been interrupted, and that to return to my current task will  
take work.  So I have a text file open always called logbook.txt when  
interrupted I write down in a full grammatically correct sentence the  
next thing I need to do on that task.  The full sentence part is  
important, at the time of the interruption it is completely impossible  
for you to understand that you won't be in the same mind context when  
you return to that task, and that a one or two word note that says,  
"search library" or "Fix server" will be zero help in recapturing the  
context, where a full sentence captures a complete thought and re- 
reading the sentence will help you recapture some or all of that  
context.  So people have come to expect that when I'm interrupted it  
will take 20 seconds for me to jot down a state dump before I switch  
contexts and help them.

Finally it's important to decide explicitly when interrupted how you  
are going to handle the new thing:
a) I'm going to work on that now.
b) I can't do that now, but I'll get to it today.
c) I am not going to decide about that now.

The case of 'a' is obvious in case 'b' you need to decide now, what  
you are going to do (what's the next physical action) and estimate how  
much time is required and capture the action on your "due today" list  
or a calendar to trigger when you need to start if you are going to  
actually get it done today.

In the case of 'c' you need a trusted place where you can record that  
new stuff and know you will sweep through it eventually and make your  
project and next actions decisions about it.  For that OmniFocus has  
an INBOX function, but it would be simple to set up an INBOX or  
INCOMING project in any other tool and make a habit of processing that  
stuff at least daily.  It's also important to keep in mind that as you  
work you can interrupt yourself as you make new discoveries about your  
current task, you should treat this these interruptions similarly.  I  
wrote about that particular problem earlier this year here:

Also a final note, the full sentence idea I use for capturing mental  
state is based on something I learned from Jean Moroney of Thinking  
Directions: It's based on her  
technique called "Thinking on Paper."  If any of the stuff I was  
talking about above is of interest I'd recommend checking out her  
work.  She periodically gives a free teleclass called "Jumpstart your  
Thinking" which gives you a low risk way to evaluate what she is doing.

Hope this is helpful.

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